January 6, 2012

Braised Turkey Legs with Onions & Butternut Squash – Thanksgiving Dinner for the Small Family

Thanksgiving is normally for us a good reason to take time off and travel around. The last few years we went to extended trips to San Francisco and Las Vegas and so didn’t really have to worry about what to cook for Thanksgiving. This year with a new baby we didn’t feel she was old enough yet to travel for a longer time and decided for the first time in six years to stay at home during the holidays, which also meant we had to think about what we wanted to cook for that special day. Even though Thanksgiving isn’t really known and celebrated in Germany and so isn’t associated with a special dish or ingredient we felt that we should try to capture the spirit of this holiday in the US with our dish. At the same time the idea to cook a large turkey and having turkey leftovers for the next several weeks wasn’t appealing to us as normally we try to avoid eating the same thing again and again as it gets boring very fast. We thought about using some other poultry or just braising some beef for this occasion but somehow it didn’t feel right for Thanksgiving.

When we started to look into the history of what was served for Thanksgiving in the US it became very fast clear that turkey was now for centuries the preferred main dish for Thanksgiving. There are several different theories why turkey is the preferred meat for Thanksgiving including one with Queen Elizabeth who celebrated during a harvest fest the news of the destruction of the Spanish Armada on its way to England with a roasted goose which later became a turkey when the pilgrims arrived in America. But the most likely explanation might be also the most unexciting one – cows and chickens were too valuable, pork not fit for a special occasion, venison would require hunting and geese were more difficult to raise so that turkeys remained as a best choice – cheap, plentiful and easy to raise.

And so it was clear for us that we would have to have turkey for Thanksgiving but instead of cooking up a whole one we decided to pick up one of the tastier parts - legs. Since one of the main problems with roasting a turkey is often that they end up dry we thought that braising would resolve this issue and yield a moist piece of turkey. And what better to capture the fall season with a Thanksgiving dish than also to include squash so that in the end we settled on Braised Turkey Legs with Onions & Butternut Squash.

The turkey legs turned out to be as moist as we hoped for and had the right consistency of being very tender without being too soft. We prefer the dark meat flavor which can stand up against stronger tasting side dishes compared to the often rather flavorless white meat. Braising of course has the disadvantage that even though it will not provide you a dried out piece of meat it can’t give you the crispy skin which is often a very nice feature of poultry. But the major drawback for us was that the turkey legs had still some tough tendon/connective tissue that didn’t soften enough even after braising and which required some knife work to still enjoy the turkey. As much as we enjoyed the meat the real star of the dish for us were the vegetables and the sauce made of out the braising liquid and pancetta. Both butternut squash and sweet onions provided a wonderful foundation for the whole dish with a combination of sweetness and certain earthiness characteristic for especially winter squash. The vegetables were also briefly braised in the braising liquid of the turkey legs which helped to permeate the vegetables with the herbs and the crumbled pancetta completed this dish. Next time we will try to braise the legs for a longer time at a lower temperature to remove all connective tissue and it should make this dish perfect as great meal for a festive day.

Heat butter in skillet over medium-high heat and sauté pancetta for eight minutes until crisp and brown. Transfer pancetta to plate lined with paper towels to drain and remove half of the pancetta fat to a jar. Preheat oven to 150 °C/300 °F.

Season turkey legs with salt and pepper and sear thighs on both sides for six minutes per side. If skillet is too small do this in two batches to avoid overcrowding the skillet. Transfer legs to plate.

Add onion, carrots, celery and garlic to skillet and season lightly with salt and pepper. Saute vegetables for five minutes until they start to brown. Add thyme, sage, bay leaf and orange juice and deglaze skillet by bringing the orange juice to a strong simmer and scraping bottom of the pan. Simmer orange juice for one minute until reduced by half.

Add the turkey legs and stock to vegetable mixture and bring to simmer. Place skillet in oven and braise for 70 minutes with turning the legs once after 30 minutes.

While the legs are braising heat reserved pancetta fat in another skillet over medium-high heat, add onions and garlic and some salt and pepper and sauté the vegetables for 12 minutes until browned. Transfer vegetables to plate. Add butter to skillet and sauté squash for ten minutes with frequent stirring until browned. Remove from heat and set aside until legs are done.

Once turkey legs are finished braising remove them from skillet and cover them with foil on a plate to keep warm. Strain the braising liquid and discard the vegetables.

Return squash to medium-high heat, add the onion garlic mixture and sauté for two minutes. Add the braising liquid with the sage and parsley, cover the pot and braise the squash over low heat for 15 minutes until tender. Crumble the reserved pancetta and add to the squash mixture. Increase the heat to high and cook for two minutes to thicken the sauce. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve with turkey legs.

Recipe adapted from “All about Braising”

Serves 4

1 tbsp butter
120 g (1/4 lb) pancetta, diced
4 bone-in, skin-on turkey legs
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 thyme sprigs
2 sage sprigs
1 bay leaf
120 ml (1/2 cup) freshly squeezed orange juice
240 ml (1 cup) chicken stock
450 g (1 lb) sweet onions, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp butter
950 g (2 lb) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch chuncks
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbsp sage, chopped


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